The Changes A-coming

Covid-19 has reminded us, if we needed reminding, that people behave in unpredictable ways. We are not, it turns out, rational beings. Our leaders lead from the front, the back, not at all, or just feather their own nest first. People defy curfews; they cough on others, smear their saliva on lift buttons, and fight over toilet rolls. Others sacrifice themselves helping strangers, look out for neighbours they barely know, sing and perform to lift others’ spirits. This should give us pause before we start predicting what the world will look like after the virus.

A piece by Politico confirmed my bias that there is a tendency among those viewing the crisis unfold towards confirmation bias — nearly all the experts asked to contribute their thoughts on how the world will be changed effectively said what you think they would say: the author of a book called “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarisation” said that there would be a, er, decline in polarisation. The author of a book called “The Death of Expertise” said there would be a, um, return to seriousness and respect for expertise. The author of a book about how social infrastructure can help fight inequality said the virus would “force us to reconsider who we are and what we value” and “make substantial new investments in public goods-for health.”

I’m not mocking these writers, or the article itself. It’s natural enough to see in the virus the seeds of the change one is hoping for or has already predicted would happen. Such predictions rarely stand the test of time. We saw the same phenomenon after 9/11, the last great external shock to the West’s system. People talked then about leaving New York, about embracing a different, simpler life. They bought canoes, bulletproof vests, ammunition, parachutes. Analysts predicted a quite different future for us all. A N.R. Kleinfield wrote a decade on in the New York Times:

Paul Simon said he didn’t know if he could ever complete another album. A woman wrote on a remembrance site that she regretted that she had had children, that she had brought their innocence into a world no longer fathomable to her.

But there has been a chasm between expectations and reality. The prophecy of more attacks on the United States has not been the case, not yet at least. Bumbling attempts got close — involving underwear and a shoe and a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder — but the actuality has been that terrorist acts on American soil in the succeeding years have been, as always, largely homegrown.

So many things were expected to be different that have not been. Time passes, and passes some more. Exigencies of living hammer away impatiently. People — most of them, at least — began to become themselves. New York, which by its nature accommodates so much, was willing to absorb 9/11 and keep moving.

That day for many of us is as fresh as if it were yesterday, but the way we thought it would change us has grown stale. Yes, we have the security theatre of airport checks — though they too, might change emphasis once the viral dust has settled — but for most of us our lives didn’t change substantially. (Paul Simon has released six albums, six compilations and one boxed set since 9/11.)

It’s understandable we feel that momentous events have momentous, long-term impacts on our lives, but the reality is that the changes wrought are both less and more than what we anticipate, even by the boffins among us.  

Probably the best way to view the impact of Covid-19 is to view the impact of its predecessor. Not SARS or MERS, although they highlighted how those countries with a institutional and collective memory of a recent epidemic are best equipped mentally and logistically for a new one; but the Spanish ‘Flu of 1918-20, which affected much of the same territory as Covid has — namely the world.

Beds with patients in an emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the influenza epidemic. Date: circa 1918. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house at Etzel and Page Avenues, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly there are significant similarities between the two in the way they played out. As we have seen in Europe, Australia and the U.S., there’s a reluctance on the part of government to impose unpopular measures — most obviously to get people out of pubs, off beaches and indoors. The same was true in France in 1918, where local officials were reluctant to enforce measures such as closing theatres, cinemas, churches and markets “for fear of annoying the public.” Japan happily banned mass gatherings in its Korean colony, but didn’t even consider trying the same thing back home.

People are people. Officials don’t want to do unpopular things (except when they do not actually face the voter — Japan was by then a democracy of sorts.) And while during the pandemic itself people behaved much as we’re behaving — most of us with “collective resilience”, as Laura Spinney puts it in her excellent Pale Rider — that group identity eventually splinters, and “bad” behaviour emerges. She points to the 1919 Rio carnival, intended to mark the end of the crisis even while the flu was still claiming lives, where the partying took a dark twist: one historian, Sueann Caulfield, found that in the period after the epidemic, there was a surge in reported rapes in the city, temporarily outnumbering other types of crime. The point — beyond the horror of the crimes themselves — is that people behave in strange ways, and crises both fundamentally change their behaviour, but also amplify existing traits. There is no simple outcome.

So predicting is a dangerous game, or it would be if we were ever held to the predictions we make. And it is, of course, far too soon to even know how this crisis will unfold, how long it will take and how many of us it will take with it. So it’s probably unfair to ask others to predict the lasting impacts, at least at this point, and unfair to mock them for their confirmation bias. I would love a more civil society that takes electing its leaders seriously enough to realise they aren’t electing someone to entertain them as much as operate the levers of government. I would love to believe that the selflessness we’ve seen come out of the crisis thus far would linger after peace returns, that we will properly honour those in and serving the medical professions — from the cleaner to the surgeon. That we will realise it can’t go on like this, that we have to take better care of the planet, not move so selfishly through it and past each other, that Gaia is a complex being that weaves everything into her web, even unseen droplets that can pass between us, which we can use to kill each other if we do not take the utmost care.

But that would probably be asking too much. We have to assume that the crisis brings out both the best in us and the worst in us, and we need to stop virtue-signalling about helping old folk with their groceries or checking in on neighbours and just do it, sotto voce, both during the quarantine and after it. If you need a reason why, it’s because collective resilience is as selfish as looking after yourself alone; during crises we tend to perceive ourselves not as individuals but as members of a group, and hence (so the psychological theory goes) helping others in the group is a form of selfishness. Do it, but don’t pat yourself on the back and post something to Facebook about it. If you were really serious about it you would have been doing it long ago, and keep doing it long after.

So my predictions? I’ll jump off that cliff in a later post, but for now, it seems likely that we will both underestimate and overestimate the length and impact of this crisis. Those of us who think we’re well prepared for this, will find that it hits us in other ways. Those of us fearful for the future will probably find fresh reservoirs of strength. The only thing I can predict with any certainty is that it will start to get boring quickly, and while people are dying, others will be defying curfews and sabotaging efforts to stamp out the virus. At the same time, I believe there will be more quiet heroics that will go untold, more quiet domestic solidarity among families that once fought, and the rise of business ideas amidst the lockdown that will make millions for those who nurse them to life. I’ll hang my hat on those predictions, alongside my mask and hand sanitizer gel.

Is 5G Bad for You?


5G has reignited old discussions about whether mobile signals are bad for us — both from cell towers and from the devices themselves.

I’m not a doctor, first off. But I think it’s at least worth taking a look at the data.

A piece by Fierce Wireless’ Sue Marek points to some poor reporting on the 5G base station issue. This centres around the assertion that because 5G requires denser base stations — more antennae per square mile, in other words — there are going to be more radio frequency emissions which will put us in danger. She points to a report, to put it charitably, by RT (yes, them, let’s call a spade Russia Today) which was explored by the New York Times. This was quite easily dismissed as disinformation, but is the Times’, and Marek’s conclusion — that ” 5G is not a health threat”, actually true?

There’s plenty of solid reporting that suggests it is. The WHO, the American Cancer Society, the NIH and others all report that, as WHO put it, “RF exposures from base stations and wireless technologies in publicly accessible areas (including schools and hospitals) are normally thousands of times below international standards.” All these reports are helpfully collated at Wireless Health Facts, which carries the logo of an outfit called CTIA, which the website doesn’t explain, but is in fact a trade association representing the U.S. wireless communications industry. (I don’t have a problem with the CTIA putting up a website collecting the solid research about 5G and health, but I wish they would make it clear a) who they are, b) link to their website, c) offer some way to connect to them via that website and d) include some contrary research for balance.)

And that last point is the thing. There IS contrary research that does suggest there’s a problem. Medical News Today, a UK-based commercial publication owned by Healthline Media, produced a report in August whose tagline said: “As 5G wireless technology is slowly making its way across the globe, many government agencies and organizations advise that there is no reason to be alarmed about the effects of radiofrequency waves on our health. But some experts strongly disagree.” The piece was written by Yella Hewings-Martin, a PhD in pediatrics and child health from University College London. The piece was fact-checked by a Bristol-based copy editor, Gianna D’Emilio.

Hewings-Martin’s piece, which is worth a read, walks the reader through the issues. At its core the question is: do the radio frequency electromagnetc fields (fields of energy resulting from electronomagnetic radiation, itself the result of the flow of electricity) from base stations and handsets cause negative biological effects on us humans?

Yes, is the answer: at high levels they cause heating, which lead to burns and other tissue damage. But mobile devices emit these RF-EMFs at low levels, so is this going to be a problem?

A panel of 30 scientists the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2011 concluded that there was limited evidence, and so classified RF-EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, lumping it in the same group as aloe vera whole leaf extract, gasoline engine exhaust fumes, and pickled vegetables, according to Hewings-Martin.

Although IARC is part of the World Health Organisation, the WHO is conducting its own study. That’s not finished yet. For now, the WHO states that: “To date, no adverse health effects from low level, long term exposure to radiofrequency or power frequency fields have been confirmed, but scientists are actively continuing to research this area.”

Hewings-Martin acknowledges in her piece that 5G is a different kettle of fish. 5G needs smaller cells because the high-frequecy radio waves it uses have a shorter range. But she quotes a paper in Frontiers in Public Health from August that:

dHigher frequency (shorter wavelength) radiation associated with 5G does not penetrate the body as deeply as frequencies from older technologies although its effects may be systemic.

Here it cites two studies which both say our understanding of, for example, “the implications of human immersion in the electromagnetic noise, caused by devices working at the very same frequencies as those to which the sweat duct (as a helical antenna) is most attuned.”

The bottom line: Researchers always want to do more research. But their point is a good one: long term studies, like this one, are looking at the effect of all these EMF-related health risks over decades. We’re barely into two decades of mobile phone use, and now we’re shifting the technology into new areas. While I definitely agree with those who want to see less fear-mongering, I think it’s intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge the medical and academic literature that points to concerns and which highlights our lack of understanding of the long term effects of the technology.

I would like to see the CTIA include these studies (or solid pieces like Hewings-Martin’s) on its website, and I would also like to see a proper investigation of claims by academics like Lennart Hardell that the provisional conclusion of the WHO cited above was written by a team of six people, five of whom were serving or former members of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), what Hardell calls “an industry-loyal NGO”. The ICNIRP is explored in an Investigate Europe piece here.

These alleged conflicts of interest are an area of controversy in themselves: Susan Pockett, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, wrote a paper for Magnetochemistry, a peer-reviewed journal published by MDPI, earlier this year, exploring outfits like the ICNIRP, concluding that “politicians in the Western world should stop accepting soothing reports from individuals with blatant conflicts of interest and start taking the health and safety of their communities seriously.” The paper has since been retracted, according to Retraction Watch, after its editorial board “found that it contains no scientific contribution and that Magnetochemistry is not the appropriate forum for this kind of “opinion” publication.”

Pockett accused the publication of “political interference in the normal processes of science. The paper was nobbled, by one of the many large entities (governments, regulatory agencies, Big Wireless) who would have found the facts it states inconvenient.” (It’s not clear who complained about the piece, and Pockett provides no evidence for her claims. Retraction Watch points to Pockett using some questionable instrumentation for gathering data used in her paper.)